Recent soil testing found lead contamination from a battery recycling plant extends further than previously estimated. New testing shows the contamination could reach as many as 10,000 homes in Los Angeles County.
Vernon Battery Recycling Plant began operations in 1922 with Exide Technologies taking over ownership in 2000. Their primary function was to melt lead from batteries to reuse as raw materials for new car batteries. California officials allowed the facility to operate for 33 years under a temporary permit, even as it racked up dozens of serious environmental law violations for releasing pollution into the air, soil and water.
Community outrage mounted in 2013, when a report released by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Exide’s arsenic emissions posed an increased cancer risk to 110,000 people who live near the facility.
The EPA released a report on lead soil stating that when lead is deposited in soil, it does not biodegrade or decay, so it remains in the soil at elevated levels. Lead is estimated to have a half-time of residence in soil of 1,000 years.
The most serious source of exposure to soil lead is through direct ingestion (eating) of contaminated soil. In general, plants do not absorb or accumulate lead. However, in soils testing high in lead, it is possible for some lead to be taken up. Higher concentrations are more likely to be found in leafy vegetables (i.e. lettuce) and on the surface of root crops (i.e. carrots) than food with skins.
Since plants do not take up large quantities of soil lead, the risk of lead poisoning through the food chain increases as the soil lead level rises above 330 parts per million.
Previously, The California Department of Toxic Substances Control estimated a few hundred homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood that would require cleanup after decades of air pollution from the now-closed facility. The department now believes that the facility’s lead emissions tainted soil up to 1.7 miles downwind, potentially requiring a cleanup of 5,000 to 10,000 properties.
Though the tests found other metals that are markers of Exide’s emissions, the primary concern is lead, a potent neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems in children and has no safe level of exposure.
However, there are no properties currently with high enough lead levels to require immediate action under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines.
The Toxic Substances Department issued a report that said more than 8,000 soil samples at 146 properties in the expanded testing area around the Exide plant “did not find any pattern of dangerous levels of lead contamination” and “an emergency does not exist.” Only 1% of lead samples were above 1,000 parts per million, the report said. This report has been removed from their website due to community outrage.
With the possible increase in contamination area, the cost could increase tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, far more than the original $9 million the department had budgeted for removing soil.
In a deal struck in March with the U.S. attorney’s office, Exide agreed to pay at least $50 million to demolish and clean the 15-acre facility and remove lead contamination from nearby homes. In exchange, Exide and its employees avoid criminal charges for years of releasing dangerous pollutants into the community.
Project Organizers are seeking additional funding from Exide and other parties that contributed to the contamination; however, an updated cost estimate has not been finalized.
For community members and activists, the latest news was further confirmation of the shortcomings of the toxic substances department, whose oversight of hazardous substances has been harshly criticized statewide in recent years.
“We’re looking at a massive public health disaster that has largely resulted from the state’s utter regulatory failure,” said Gladys Limon, an attorney for the advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment.
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